Planning and executing major investigations in high school journalism

Journalism Education Association presentation, April 2000

By Libby Hartigan, Managing Editor, L.A. Youth teen newspaper

Four Steps to Investigative Journalism
Case 1: School problems, an L.A. Youth cover story
Case 2: Dating violence, an L.A. Youth cover story
Case 3: Criticizing a principal, a Birmingham High editorial

Four Steps to Investigative Journalism

First step: Selecting a topic
Pick one (or two—if you’re really crazy) general topic per year. Focus on that topic so you can make a splash.

Students’ role: Pay attention to the news. Read magazines and newspapers. Be curious and informed about what’s happening in your school and community. Get excited about the possibility of being able to do something that might effect change.

Advisor’s role: Create a culture in which students are encouraged to read, ask questions and be informed about what’s happening around them. Advisor should be familiar with and guide students toward great examples of investigative journalism-especially those executed by other youth. Mainstream journalism examples (such as Watergate) may seem too distant for students to connect with.

Begin with teen staff discussions. Select a topic that the students feel is important and worthy of pursuing (not necessarily the topic that the advisor wants.) What is interesting and relevant about the topic? Why is it the kind of thing your publication should take on? Make sure it fits with your publication’s mission. Advisors should take notes at this point-the notes will be needed later when reporters get lost in all the info and can’t figure out what’s important. The original impetus of the investigation, and the reasons why readers would be interested, should continue to guide the investigation throughout.

Select reporters
The advisor should select one or two committed youth as reporters. They need to be good at doing interviews, taking notes and checking facts. They may not necessarily be your best writers, though that’s helpful. They should have a passionate interest in the topic-this will carry them through the grueling process. Don’t make the team too big-this brings in the "fool-around factor" and dilutes responsibility too much ("Oh, John was supposed to do that." "I was?")

The reporters should research the topic. How have other media (magazines, newspapers, TV, web sites) addressed the issue? What do the reporters think of the way they did it? What did they like or dislike about other media approaches? that kinds of sources did these media use? What was the impact of their coverage?

Choose a focus
Narrow the focus of the investigation way, way down. Always go to the source, getting the most first-hand material you can.

Second step: Getting the story
This can take months, depending on how hard it is to find and interview sources. Reporters need somewhere they can have sources call-preferably not their home number, though e-mail might be okay. They may have to write letters requesting interviews, file Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, or understand legal issues.

Students’ role:

    * Be persistent. Keep trying. Sometimes reporters from your local newspaper can give you advice on how to reach someone. Don’t believe everything you hear-but don’t discount someone just because they’re strange, different or you don’t like them.

    * Keep in mind the story you want, not necessarily the story your sources want you to tell.
    * If you discover information that is unflattering to someone or an organization, you have to give them a chance to respond to it.
    * Keep the information organized.
    * If you have a partner, divide tasks so that you share the workload.

Advisor’s role:

    * Make sure the students have a system for keeping the information organized. I think large enclosed envelopes work the best—otherwise, the notes, media clippings and scraps of paper get tucked in a back pack or an open folder or notebook, and they get lost. Every so often, demand that the students type up a list of all their sources and phone numbers.
      That’s usually what gets lost-phone numbers and e-mail addresses.

    * Keep the reporters motivated. Meet with them frequently to advise them or just to hear how things are going. Have them give regular reports to journalism classes about their investigation. Students can ask them questions and give them props for how hard they are working. It also can become an opportunity for the advisor to teach the whole class about specific journalism strategies—like doing interviews or getting documents. If a tough interview is coming up, the whole class could have input on what kind of questions to ask.

    * Teach students about the public organizations involved in the topic. Help them understand how government and other institutions work. For example, here in Los Angeles, we have the Los Angeles Police Department, which is a City of Los Angeles institution, and the Sheriff’s Department, which is financed and managed by Los Angeles County. If the advisor is not familiar with some particular institutions, sometimes local reporters will help explain how things work.

    * Help students resist pressure from sources to withhold or alter information. However, such pressure should cause students to think carefully about whether they’re being fair to sources.

Third step: Putting the story together
Before the students begin writing, they should sit down with the advisor and discuss the material they have so far. Do they have all the pieces they need? Is more research required? Are there any legal issues (like someone threatening to sue you)? At this point, the advisor should pull out the notes from the very first discussion that took place on the topic. What was the main thing that interested the students initially? Usually that can guide and give a structure to the whole piece. Students should not begin writing until they have a very solid outline and a sense of what goes into each section.

Break up the writing responsibility so that each student has to cover a particular area-or perhaps the strongest writer should put the whole thing together.

Look for ways to break up the story into pieces and publish it as a package.

Look for ways to make the story visual-photos, graphs and illustrations will bring the reader into the piece, especially if you’re throwing a lot of information at the reader.

In the final stages, find some people who are uninvolved and ask them to read the piece. When you work on something for a long time, you often forget to explain the most obvious things-but the reader, who is coming to the story for the first time, needs to have everything explained.

Fourth step: Promoting the story
If you’re not going to bother to promote your story, why bother doing it? It’s a huge investment of resources, but it can pay off for your publication and your journalism program in terms of credibility, visibility, funding and student scholarships.

Copies of the article, with a cover letter from a student or advisor, should be sent to every decision maker that is affected by the scope of the piece. It also should be sent to local radio, TV or newspaper outlets so they can interview your teen reporters. The journalism class(es) should be involved in this promotional effort also.

Case One: A report on the problems at a high school
Headline: "My school deserves better—and so do I"
Published in L.A. Youth, Cover story for November-December 1998, written by Gohar Galyan, Marshall HS

First step: Selecting a topic
One summer day, Gohar came to an L.A. Youth staff meeting boiling mad. She had attended the first day of Advanced Placement Spanish at her year-round school, and there were so many students that they were sitting on the window sills. We talked about it. All the students on the staff had similar stories to tell.

I began clipping articles about education that were appearing in local publications. During a staff meeting I led a discussion of the school board. I showed a chart of the school board members and explained that they are elected officials. We talked about the organizational structures of the school district. We wondered who has power and how much power they have. Students asked: If school board members said something, could they be believed? Students began to question why things were so bad.

Second step: Getting the story
Gohar wrote a letter (which I reviewed) requesting interviews with several board members and the Superintendent of the district. The superintendent declined, so she settled for the head of the senior high school division. She had to reschedule these interviews several times because of everyone’s tight schedules.

One board member (a former history teacher) didn’t like a question that she asked him, so he asked, "Tell me what I just said to you. Didn’t I just answer that question?" Gohar was not thrown by this; she summarized what he had said and calmly continued her interview.

I insisted that she interview her principal to give him a chance to respond to some of the negative things she was going to write about her school. He tried to convince Gohar not to use direct quotes or attribute any quotes, saying she was being disloyal to the school and that her article would hurt Marshall. He said that attributing quotes to real people would distract the readers from the real issues. (Wasn’t that creative?) Gohar also tried to interview teachers, but most declined to be interviewed out of fear or apathy.

I had Gohar speak about her interviews during a staff meeting so that the other students would know what she was working on and learn from her example.

After five months, Gohar had interviewed several teachers, her principal, a district official and two school board members.

Third step: Putting the story together
Gohar and I sat down and talked about her piece. I asked my favorite questions:

    * What’s the most interesting thing you found out?
    * If you were talking to your best friend about this article, what would you tell her?
    * If you wanted the reader to come away with one main idea, what would it be?

Gohar began writing. After a painstaking process of revision, the piece was ready.

Meanwhile, I had been working with other reporters on the same topic. Along with Gohar’s article, we ran a piece about a student who successfully beefed up the science department at her school by submitting a formal petition of complaint signed by classmates; a story about a girl who was held back because she ditched too much and a commentary questioning why schools are spending so much money on fancy new technology when a lot of students can’t read or write.

For art, we went with a headline drawn in chalk on a chalkboard-drawn and photographed by a talented student artist.

Fourth step: Promoting the story
We felt we had a very strong piece on our hands, and we were publishing it just as Governor Davis took office, naming education as his number one priority. We went the extra mile to promote Gohar’s article. We created a list of every elected official in Los Angeles County, and every state official that dealt with education and mailed them the article with a cover letter. Many people wrote back with encouraging notes, grateful that they had heard from a student in the midst of the noisy debate over how to improve schools.

In December, the piece was reprinted in the Los Angeles Times education section. Gohar appeared on "Life & Times," a local public affairs show. Her article was later referenced by an L.A. Times editorial stating that the school district needed to be more accountable.

The following December, Gohar was named as the only student representative on the LAUSD committee to establish selection criteria for the new superintendent. Meanwhile, she got a position on the Teen People News Team. She will attend Stanford University in the fall.

Case Two: A story about a teen’s experience with dating violence
Headline: He seemed like a great boyfriend … A true story of dating violence
Published in L.A. Youth, Cover Story for March-April 2000,
written by Julissa Espinoza and Christy Buena, Los Angeles High School

First step: Selecting a topic
Dating violence has been a subject of ongoing concern at L.A. Youth. We had written about it twice before, but several murders in the Los Angeles area in the summer of 1999 got all the students talking about it again. It was a sad situation: these girls had been brutally shot by angry ex-boyfriends. Katrina Gibson, who had several friends who had been treated violently by their boyfriends, wanted to work on the story. She felt it was very important to inform teens about dating violence and encourage them to leave violent relationships.

Second step: Getting the story
Over a period of three months, Katrina called information to get the phone numbers of the two families whose daughters were killed. She called the Coroner’s Office for a copy of the death reports (she had to submit the request in writing). She wrote a letter to both families explaining the story we wanted to do and requesting an interview. Finally the father of one of the girls responded. He was willing to do an interview, but there were two problems:

1) He spoke Spanish (and Katrina didn’t).
2) He wanted Katrina to promise to focus on the unwillingness of the district attorney to extradite the murder suspect from Mexico.

I spoke to the father and explained that we were not necessarily going to write about the district attorney, although we were interested in the family’s point of view.

Katrina made an appointment and I drove her to the family’s home, taking along Ambar Espinoza, who speaks Spanish. The two girls, who were cousins, were shot at the same time as they walked to school. The parents told the story of their tragic death and described how the loss had affected their families. They insisted that the murderer was not an ex-boyfriend.

During the next two months, Katrina and Ambar spoke to numerous classmates. Some said that he was a boyfriend of one of the girls, and some said he wasn’t. The police said he was an ex-boyfriend, and other media had reported it. The mother of one of the girls became angrier as time went by. She insisted her daughter had never been involved with this guy. She started calling Ambar at home, hassling her. She threatened to sue L.A. Youth. She called classmates and told them that if L.A. Youth published its story, that the killer would come back and kill them too. The principal of the girls’ high school called and begged me not to run the story.

I didn’t like being pressured by the mother. I didn’t think a lawsuit would hold up in court, and there was no way our sources could be identified in the story. I felt it was quite possible that the girl hid her relationship from most people—teens do it all the time. On the other hand, how could we tell for sure? If we were wrong, that would be unfair, even though other media had reported that he was an ex-boyfriend. Then I thought back to the original impetus of the story—Katrina wanted to warn our readers about dating violence. But this material primarily dealt with the homicides. We had lots of details about the murders, the grieving families and friends and the police involvement, and almost nothing about the relationship between the girl and the alleged ex-boyfriend. What we really wanted to write about was the teen’s experience—and there was no way we could get it. Regretfully, we decided to drop the story.

Meanwhile, Katrina had contacted her friends to see if she could interview them. They all declined (several insisted that they had never been hit, even though Katrina knew this wasn’t true).

In December 1999, I wrote a letter to Patricia Giggans, director of the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women, whom I had met at a recent conference, explaining our predicament. Could she help us find a teen who had been in a violent relationship?

Patricia referred me to a staff member, who got back to me later in January. She  knew of someone, but wanted to talk to her first. We finally scheduled an interview in February. We agreed not to use her name or any information that might let someone identify her. By that time, Katrina was unavailable, so Julissa Espinoza and Christy Buena did the interview.

Julissa and Christy read a book on dating violence, In Love and In Danger, and prepared interview questions. When they arrived for the interview, Christy got a huge shock-she had attended junior high with this girl. It made it hard for her to ask questions because the girl had suffered so much at the hands of her boyfriend.

Third step: Putting the story together
Julissa and Christy sat with a tape recording of the interview and their notes and together, wrote a first draft. They worked really well together—something I have rarely seen in my 10 years at L.A. Youth. They didn’t really need an outline because it such a strong interview. All they had to do was tell the girl’s story; how she met the guy, how their relationship developed and what it was like.

However, the piece still needed an editor’s input. Julissa and Christy were concerned about quoting their source accurately. But a reporter still needs to analyze an interview and sometimes synthesize information. Every reader would be wondering why the girl stayed with the abusive guy for three years, during which time he hit her frequently. They had asked her why, and she had given five different contradictory answers in the course of the interview. Which was "the truth?"

In their first draft, they wrote, "We wonder why she stayed with him for that duration of time, tolerating all the abuse. Dolores said it was difficult for her to separate from Mark because she thought she loved him, he made her feel loved and protected. She didn’t want to leave that."

The final draft included more of the complexities of Dolores’ situation:

"Her best friend told her to leave him but she was so confused. Sometimes he was really sweet and she didn’t want to leave him. Other times, she was angry but she though she loved him. She didn’t want to see him get beat up by somebody or arrested by the cops. She couldn’t really tell her parents-they thought he was a ‘nice boy.’ When he hit her, it made it hard for her to think clearly, and she’d start to believe what he said. ‘He brainwashed me,’ she said.

At another point in the interview, when asked why she didn’t leave him, she said, ‘To this day, I don’t know why.’ "

Along with this strong interview, we ran a book review of In Love and In Danger; an interview with a staff member from the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women; and a quiz on how to tell if your relationship is violent.

We thought long and hard about how to illustrate this topic. We weren’t allowed to use a photo of our source, which is probably the thing our readers would want the most. A group of artists brainstormed and came up with several strong illustrations. My favorite was the one we used on the cover-a heart wrapped in a thorny vine.

Fourth step: Promoting the story
In the L.A. Youth Teacher’s Guide, we included some classroom exercises to help teachers discuss dating violence with their students.

If we had been able to write about the girls who had been murdered, I probably would have promoted the articles more, because other media would have been more interested. But the story of the murders, in a way, might have been a little misleading. It would have implied to our readers that dating violence always ends in murder. Those readers who are dealing with emotional abuse or lesser physical violence would have gotten the impression that their relationship wasn’t really violent since no one had gotten killed.

So I was happy with the story we got. It probably served our readers’ needs better, even though it was of less interest to adult audiences and other media.

Case Three: Criticizing a Principal
Published in The Birmingham Courier, editorial, December 1996
written by Marvin Arevalo, Aida Marquez, Alan Ocana, Birmingham High School in the San Fernando Valley

First step: Selecting a topic
During the summer of 1996, advisor Adrienne Mack started researching the early journalists who campaigned to de-segregate baseball. She used her research to teach her students about how journalists can make a difference. Her students started talking about the problems they saw in their school, and especially the problems they saw with their principal.

Second step: Getting the story
The three students researched their topic, finding out what they could about their principal and his predecessor, with their advisor’s blessing.

Third step: Putting the story together
The students wrote a scathing editorial spelling out all the things they found unsatisfactory about their principal. The editorial quoted from a Daily News article and supplied numerous concrete examples and facts to show that the previous principal had done a great job-and his successor wasn’t measuring up.

Fourth step: Promoting the story
Advisor Adrienne Mack published the piece—and kept her job (although she is no longer teaching journalism now, by her own choice). In subsequent issues, the Courier published a front-page response from the principal, as well as a letter from the previous principal. In his response, the principal wrote, "I don’t agree with what the students wrote, but respect their right to say or write it."

Because the Courier staff diligently sent copies of their paper to outside organizations like L.A. Youth, the editorial was reprinted in the pages of L.A. Youth as an example of courageous journalism.

Ms. Mack later told me that she felt that the story, though it was difficult for the principal, may have caused him to re-examine the way he was doing his job and become more responsive to the school’s needs.